Why effective brand writing isn’t always “proper”

copywriters

I jokingly tell colleagues that English majors make the worst copywriters.

OK. I’m not really joking.

The problem is that most English majors—or for that matter anyone who had a parent or teacher who pounded rules of grammar into their heads—are so bound by the rules they’ve been taught that they write pieces that are absolutely, technically flawless and proper. And yet totally and completely ineffective.

Brands need to be engaging, and that often means copywriters need to write the way they—and their customers—talk.

Think your customers use the Queen’s English in their everyday conversations? Unlikely. No, they unapologetically start their sentences with “ands.” Or “buts.” They even use sentences that aren’t technically sentences. Seriously.

The truth is that if your brand’s ads use AP style, then your brand has no style at all.

When it comes to writing effective copy, the only rules that should apply are: 
  1. Does the text make your audience feel the way you want them to feel?
  2. Does it communicate your ideas clearly?

If achieving those goals means throwing the style guides out the window and breaking all those school rules of grammar, then so be it.

I encourage copywriters and clients to always read their pieces out loud. Doing so lets you hear how the words will sound in the heads of your readers. It sounds silly, but try it. I guarantee it will make you a more effective writer because you’ll start to recognize the awkwardness in your work and begin to make your writing more conversational—and ultimately, more effective.

One of my favorite examples of the writing-as-talking technique is the amazing It’s Half Time In America script written by Matthew Dickman of Weiden & Kennedy for Chrysler that ran during the 2012 Super Bowl. Voiced by Clint Eastwood, the two-minute spot featured a montage of video scenes showing everyday Americans—and later, Chrysler employees—at work. Take a look at the script:

“It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half. It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together—now Motor City is fighting again. I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. And times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems like we’ve lost our heart at times. When the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.

All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again—and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime, America. And our second half is about to begin.”

Read that again, but this time, do it out loud.

Now, is that a script an English major would write?

No.

Is it absolutely effective communication?

That tingle down your spine that comes from reading it to yourself—even without Clint Eastwood’s voice or the associated imagery—says “yes.”

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by Aaron Dotson

He creates, builds and sells, sells, sells brands. A strategist and professor with a passion for storytelling who still loves the title “copywriter.” Recipient of the Richmond Ad Club’s highest honor: Advertising Person of the Year.

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Topics: Creative Development